|Damien Sneed and Justin Austin at Weill Recital Hall of Carnegie Hall|
We don't usually get teary-eyed at vocal recitals. That usually happens when we witness something visually exquisite like a double rainbow in the mountains around Santa Fe, or watching a hummingbird dipping its beak into the center of a flower. Those are natural phenomena; singing is all artifice. But sometimes the results of intense study and lengthy practice applied to a natural gift can make this artifice seem as natural as the rainbow or the hummingbird.
So it was that last night at Weill Recital Hall of Carnegie Hall we found ourself incredibly moved by an outstanding recital performed by baritone Justin Austin, whose growth we have witnessed as he studied his way through Manhattan School of Music, guided by the glorious soprano Catherine Malfitano, who recognized and fostered his artistic evolution.
The recital came about as a consequence of Mr. Austin's winning the 2016 First Place Scholarship awarded by The National Association of Negro Musicians. The association has been around for nearly a century, explaining the outdated name. It is strange to think of Mr. Austin as a "negro musician" because we have only thought of him as a preternaturally gifted singer, no discriminatory labeling necessary. But we understand that, to a group that feels marginalized, his labeling means something different. Some day the marginalization will be a thing of the past, or so we hope.
Mr. Austin strode confidently onto the stage in sartorial splendor and his collaborative pianist Damien Sneed sported a mohawk. This was, of course, just window dressing since we came for the sound, not the picture. And what a sound! Mr. Austin's baritone is a caressing one with a fine vibrato that makes one think of velvet. Although he is young, just 27 years old, his sound is a mature one.
As one might predict, our favorite part of the program was the first set which he began with an aria from Cavalli's 1645 opera Doriclea --"Chi non s'accenderebbe". If we are not mistaken, Mr. Austin sang in this opera three years ago at MSM. What we appreciated, aside from the beautiful tone and Italianate phrasing, was the emotive content.
His singing goes straight to the heart, not only in Italian but also in German. Hearing him sing straight through the consonants without cheating them was an aural pleasure. Schubert's "Die Krahe" from his cycle Winterreise was so fine that we want to hear Mr. Austin perform the entire cycle.
The simplicity with which he performed Brahms' "Die Mainacht" was exactly what Brahms had in mind when he set the simple folksong with such artistry. (Or so we would like to believe.)
Hugo Wolf's song "Herr, was tragt der Boden hier" is a different kind of song--complex and intense, with the drama heightened by Mr. Austin's skills in dynamic variety.
The remainder of the program was in English and we didn't expect to like it as much as we did. How rare to find a singer who can make every word intelligible! Often we have trouble concentrating on songs in English, getting distracted by wondering what that last phrase was about. Not here! Not only was each word clear but the phrasing always made sense.
One set paid tribute to the disenfranchised. Margaret Bonds' song "Minstrel Man" reminded us of the Eichendorff text "Ich kann wohl manchmal singen" which was set by several composers in the 19th c. The poet hides his grief behind a joyful exterior.
William Bolcom's "Ballad of the Landlord" resonated particularly with the audience. In Ricky Ian Gordon's "Luck", Mr. Austin spun out the final note in a long silken thread.
Mr. Sneed is also a composer and arranger and we enjoyed the world premiere of his song "I Dream a World" with its heart touching sentiment. He gave Mr. Austin a wonderful melismatic passage and some interesting effects heard in Early Music, and gave himself some rolling arpeggi and chromatic scale passages. We were thrilled to hear contemporary music that pleased the ear!
The second half of the program was equally enjoyable with a riveting performance of "Billy's Soliloquy" from Richard Rodgers' Carousel. Perhaps you won't agree with us but we consider this an opera! The singer fantasizes the relationship he will have with his unborn son and then considers that the child could be a girl. Mr. Austin's alteration in color and tone aptly suited the material. And we liked the way he used the entire stage.
A very different soliloquy was then performed, the very bitter justice-demanding soliloquy sung by Coalhouse Walker in Stephen Flaherty's Ragtime, a Broadway musical that we also think of as an opera. Mr. Austin got the despair and anger just right.
"Lost in the Stars" from the Kurt Weill opera of the same name was similarly well rendered.
Another one of Mr. Sneed's compositions "Oh Freedom" (also a world premiere) opened with Mr. Austin kneeling next to the American flag. For about ten seconds we were puzzled, but then noticed that Mr. Sneed was kneeling at the piano and realized that they were referencing the current brouhaha in which ball players rebelled and refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. The song began with a solo of beautiful vocal line and had the tone of a "Spiritual". Very fine!
The program ended with Mr. Sneed's arrangement of two classics--Wynton Marsalis' version of the Lord's Prayer (another world premiere) and his arrangement of M. Hayes' (Amazing) "Grace".
We have never witnessed such a wildly enthusiastic and uninhibited audience reaction to a recital. The audience rose to its feet as one and several people literally jumped up and down. It was clear that people felt the material reflected their culture and concerns. An encore was demanded but we did not recognize it much beyond the fact that it was a "Spiritual".
We entered expecting to hear Mr. Austin's consummate artistry but we got so much more than we expected. We discovered a composer who knows how to write and we felt a part of a people's quest for equality and respect. Good music can do that!
The recital was concomitant with Mr. Austin's birthday. But we felt as if he gave us a magnificent gift!
(c) meche kroop